COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Supporters of a bill removing law enforcement officers’ ability to arrest students for “disturbing schools” said Thursday that the charge criminalizes ordinary misbehavior and puts kids on a path to prison.
But Solicitor Barry Barnette and the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association countered that arrests are sometimes necessary, and the charge should remain an option for officers.
It’s a lesser offense than other possibilities such as disorderly conduct or — when fights occur — assault and battery, Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the sheriffs’ group, wrote in a letter read at a hearing on the bill.
Its chances this year are slim. The House subcommittee postponed voting.
“I wish it was a perfect world where children were well-behaved, but it’s not that way,” said Barnette, chief prosecutor for Spartanburg and Cherokee counties and a former teacher in Greenville County. “We have to have discipline in schools.”
While arguing that officers need the discretion, Barnette said “obviously in Spring Valley, discretion was poorly used.”
He was referring to the Richland County officer videotaped last October yanking a Spring Valley High School student from her desk and throwing her to the floor. Deputy Ben Fields was called to the classroom after the teen refused to stop using her cellphone and would not leave the classroom for a teacher or administrator.
The then-16-year-old was charged with disturbing schools. Barnette noted the officer was swiftly fired.
The video prompted questions about when police officers should get involved with classroom discipline.
Rep. Mia McLeod said her proposal restores the “disturbing schools” law to its original intent as approved in 1919 — to protect students from outside agitators. School administrators and teachers, not police, should handle student discipline, she said.
“I’m not sure how the law morphed into an opportunity for law enforcement to be called in to deal with typical classroom behavior, but at some point it did,” said McLeod, D-Columbia. “If refusing to put your cellphone up is criminal behavior, we’d all be arrested.”
Under her bill, only those who are not enrolled in a school could be charged with disturbing it. That includes suspended or expelled students who return to cause trouble.
The proposal defines the behavior that can result in the charge, such as threatening physical harm, starting a fight on school grounds and entering school property without permission. It also increases maximum penalties for the misdemeanor from 90 days to one year in county jail.
But even supporters didn’t like the bill wholly as written. Several asked for penalties to stay the same.
Aleksandra Chauhan, a public defender in Richland County, said it’s normal for teens to misbehave and schools must address discipline differently.
“Once children come in to the criminal system, they remain in the criminal system. Simply putting handcuffs on children’s hands has a great impact on them,” she said. “We are doing a great damage to children for overcriminalizing behavior.”
Rep. Chris Murphy, R-North Charleston, asked Chauhan why it’s the job of public schools to teach proper behavior.
“Sometimes we have to quit blaming the schools for everything,” he said. “The burden in my house is with mama and daddy.”